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61: INTRODUCING TOM PAINE

#61: INTRODUCING TOM PAINE. With due deference to the Civil War buffs who come through the Barn—and they are legion—my own favorite period in American history is that of the colonies and the War of Independence. In terms of literature things were just getting under way—the eighteenth century poets were very weak tallow compared to the bonfires of Whitman and Dickinson—but the intellectual ferment was fascinating and far-reaching: a speeded-up version of continental drift. Among the debaters and pamphleteers, the most stirring and still readable is Tom Paine, the staymaker’s son from Thetford, England. Any archaeological dig into the structures of American thought are still going to find Paine down there at the bases. For all of the eighteenth century measure of his prose, he can still rattle the rafters: hang around in the narthex some Sunday and read out sections of The Age of Reason (I dare you) and prepare for the explosion. For a generation or so the usual introduction to Paine has been Howard Fast’s Citizen Paine, but it now looks pretty forties, and a couple of new books have entered the fray. 46 PAGES: Thomas Paine, Common Sense and the Turning Point to Independence, by Scott Liel (Running Press, 2003) follows the wildfire success of Paine’s first pamphlet and its effect on popular thought. It’s a perfectly good book, but earnest and a bit pedestrian: one could imagine it being excerpted for Reader's Digest. Closer to the mark, more neatly informative and infinitely more fun to read is Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006). Hitchens is, of course, our semi-resident godless heathen, our nay-sayer, and current master of the slap shot; despite this, or because of it, he’s in consonance with Paine right down to small matters of style, and is obviously stirred to the bones by what Paine says: this is, basically, Why Paine Matters. It is also a remarkably concise presentation not just of Rights of Man but the full framework of Paine’s thought and his life. Hitchens knows that any intelligent reaction to Paine involves knowing when certain works were written: in reference to Paine on the French Revolution, not just the year, but the month and sometimes the weeks. He captures too how alert Paine was to the national disgrace of slavery, and how free he was of the common vice of anti-Semitism. All in all, read this and be prepared to want to run right out and read or reread Paine. Fortunately, this is easy to do: Penguin still has paperbacks of all the major works, and they’re collected in the Library of America volume, along with lesser-known pamphlets. It’s there and waiting.

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